They call it “workforce participation” and its simple definition is the percentage of the population that is either working or actively looking for work.
It was also the subject of a recent interim legislative study held by Tulsa Rep. Mark Tedford before the House Business and Commerece Committee.
“In my short time as a state representative, workforce issues have dominated discussions nationwide,” Tedford said. “As of 2020, Oklahoma ranked 3% behind the national average in workforce participation. Knowing the significance of this difference, I wanted to understand the reasons behind it.”
During the interim study, Lynn Gray, director of economic research and analysis at the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, explained that workforce participation includes individuals employed, actively seeking jobs, or working part-time.
John Chiappe, director of research and economic analysis services at the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, explained the four primary reasons adults do not seek employment: retirement, disability, caregiving responsibilities and educational attainment.
Julie Trivitt, a senior economist at Heartland Forward, found that while the cost and quality of childcare in Oklahoma were higher than the national average, accessibility remained a challenge. Despite lower costs, the state’s wages were also below the national average, causing childcare expenses to exceed 20% of many mothers’ incomes, making it financially out of reach for them.
According to the study, Oklahoma’s academic achievement historically lagged behind the national average, affecting employability and wages. The discussion highlighted a shift toward valuing meaningful work certificates over college degrees, recognizing the importance of vocational education.
Speakers Bradley Ward, deputy state director at Americans for Prosperity, and Marissa Lightsey, executive director of college and career readiness at the State Department of Education, emphasized educational pathways to guide students toward career goals. They said more degree programs need to meet the demand for specific high-tech jobs, and pathways can address this by directing students to such careers at an early age.
Angela Rachidi, senior fellow and Rowe scholar from the American Enterprise Institute, discussed disincentives to work created by some social programs, suggesting addressing benefit cliffs and implementing work requirements.
Other speakers included Lowell Matthews, senior policy advisor at Excel-In Education, and Jordan Zakery, regional advocacy director at Excel-In Education.
“While Oklahoma’s workforce participation is improving, it remains low compared to the national average,” Tedford said. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but efforts should focus on removing barriers to work, improving overall academic achievement and adapting to evolving labor needs.”
Source: House press release